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Dissecting SSL handshake

16 June 2012

Not everyone knows that the SSL handshake is not encrypted. When you think about it - there isn't other way, before the keys are exchanged the communication must be unencrypted. But I doubt many people think about it.

Not only the SSL handshake is plain-text, but also it contains rather interesting data. I decided to find out how much information can be retrieved from it.


Here's how the TLS handshake works:

      Client                                 Server
        |                                      |
        |  ----------- ClientHello --------->  |
        |                                      |
        |  <---------- ServerHello ----------  |
        |  <---------- Certificate ----------  |
        |                 ...                  |
        |  <-------- ServerHelloDone --------  |
        |                 ...                  |

Let's focus on the first message - ClientHello. It is actually pretty interesting. RFC defines the structure as:

struct {
    ProtocolVersion client_version;
    Random random;
    SessionID session_id;
    CipherSuite cipher_suites<2..2^16-1>;
    CompressionMethod compression_methods<1..2^8-1>;
    Extension extensions<0..2^16-1>;
} ClientHello;

Translated to English:

The SSL/TLS protocol version the client (like the browser) wishes to use during the session. Additionally there is a second version number field on the framing layer, called Record layer. And like all SSL data, ClientHello message is wrapped in the Record frame. The spec suggests the Record layer version field may be use to indicate the lowest supported SSL/TLS version, but this is rarely used in practice. Only older versions of Opera are using different values in Record and ClientHello layers.

This value is formed of 4 bytes representing time since epoch on client host and 28 random bytes. Exposing timer sources may allow clock skew measurements and those in theory may be used to identify hosts.

Your browser sends current time on the SSL layer.

Similarly, ServerHello sent by the server frame contains timestamp from the server.


Instead of going through full SSL handshake, the client may decide to reuse previously established session. The session cache is usually shared between normal and privacy modes of the browser.

Even in privacy mode, your browser may still be identifiable due to SSL session reuse.


The client shares the list of supported SSL ciphers with the server. The server will later pick up the best cipher it knows. Some of the ciphers are proven to be insecure and should be deprecated, some others are fairly recent. There isn't a global coherent list of good ciphers, and as a result every client can support different set of ciphers. Additionally the ordering of the ciphers is significant and therefore even if clients agreed on ciphers the ordering might be completely different.

By looking at the supported ciphers list it is often possible to tell what exact application had started the connection.


Some clients (for example Chrome) support Deflate compression. on SSL layer. This usually makes sense - compressing HTTP headers does save bandwidth.


TLS introduces a number of extensions. Most notably the server_name / Server Name Indication (SNI) extension is used to specify a remote host name. This allows the server to choose appropriate certificate based on the requested host name. With this extension one can host many SSL-enabled vhosts on a single IP address. Famously SNI doesn't work on any IE on Windows XP.

When using SSL, the remote domain name is transferred over the wire in plain text. Anyone able to sniff the traffic can know exactly what domains you're looking at, even when you're using HTTPS.

Similarly to the cipher list extensions and their order are application specific. For example: FireFox 11 bundled with TOR is distinguishable from standalone installation - it doesn't send SessionTicket TLS extension. Another example - Windows XP doesn't send Renegotiation Info extension without patch MS10-049 applied.

That's it, now you know what's hiding in the SSL ClientHello message. For completeness, a few words on historical protocols.

SSL 3.0

SSLv3 is identical to TLS as described, with one exception - in theory SSLv3 ClientHello packet doesn't have an extensions field. In theory SSLv3 doesn't do SNI.

In practice this is more complicated. TLS 1.0 also doesn't specify extensions field, but most clients do send them anyway.

SSL 2.0

SSL 2.0 was originally developed by Netscape. It's old, barely documented and insecure. However few applications still support it for compatibility with old servers. Some versions of wget and google crawler use the SSLv2 handshake. A CLIENT-HELLO message is defined as:


The fields are familiar - client_version, cipher_suites, session_id and challenge. It's worth noting that SSLv2 doesn't have extensions - there is no way to specify SNI .

On a final note, challenge-data length must be between 16 and 32 bytes long. In real world I've only seen 16 and 32.


Things to remember:

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